Amidst praise for Rivlin, Diaspora Jews harbor doubts

Conservative leader calls on President elect to renounce comments on Reform Judaism.

June 11, 2014 18:49
3 minute read.
Reuven Rivlin

Reuven Rivlin. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Although Jewish groups around the world rushed to congratulate the incoming president, Reuven Rivlin, on his electoral win on Tuesday, the reaction among Conservative and Reform leaders has been much more subdued. The heads of the non-Orthodox denominations have taken issue with statements made by the former Knesset speaker in which he termed Reform Judaism “idol worship and not Judaism.”

The remarks were made by Rivlin during a 1989 interview that appeared in Yediot Aharonot during a trip to the United States.

“Until now I thought Reform was a stream of Judaism, but after visiting two of their synagogues I am convinced that this is a completely new religion without any connection to Judaism. Total assimilation.

Their prayer is like a completely Protestant ceremony,” he said.

Amid all of the statements of admiration for Rivlin, a number of Jewish organizations expressed hopes that Rivlin would serve as a unifying, rather than a divisive, figure.

The presidency is a “significant platform to speak to the people of Israel as a unifying force, to Jewish communities around the world, and to foreign leaders and personalities,” wrote Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The Jewish Federations of North America was even more explicit in its demands on the president-elect, saying that for its “hundreds of thousands of constituents, representing Jews of all religious affiliations and backgrounds, the president not only represents the State of Israel, but indeed Jewish people around the world.”

The JFNA stated that it looked forward to working with Rivlin “to strengthen the bonds between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, placing a strong emphasis on ensuring that all Jews feel comfortable, and are respected, in the Jewish state.”

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, called on Rivlin to distance himself from his previous statements on non-Orthodox denominations.

“We will assume that by accepting the honor to serve as president of the national homeland of the Jewish people that President-elect Rivlin accepts the attendant responsibilities to represent and unify all of the Jewish people,” Schonfeld told The Jerusalem Post.

“With his election, President- elect Rivlin has an exceptional opportunity to set an example for Israeli political leaders by not only renouncing his previous views, but embarking on a path of leadership to build religious freedom and equality in Israel,” she added.

Schonfeld said that she was “encouraged” by Rivlin’s “close familial ties” to several former senior leaders of her movement.

Writing in Haaretz prior to the election, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the former leader of the Union for Reform Judaism, said that he was disappointed in Rivlin for failing to affirm that he will address reform clerics by the title “rabbi.”

“After Katzav’s resignation, I thought it made sense to ask the candidates for the presidency if they would honor the long established practice, pre-Katsav, of addressing Reform rabbis as “rabbi.” Peres said yes; Rivlin, anxious not to offend his ultra-Orthodox supporters, said nothing,” he wrote.

Rivlin’s task, he asserted, “will be to unite the citizens of Israel while also uniting and inspiring the Jews of the world. But the latter part of that task cannot be done by a man known for his disdain of the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. If Rivlin has changed his long-held positions, now would be the time to make that clear.”

In an open letter to Rivlin published in Haaretz Wednesday, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the head of the Reform movement in America, amplified his predecessor’s comments, admitting that he harbored “some concern about your ability and willingness to work with the largest denomination in North American Jewish life, the Reform movement, and our Israeli counterpart, the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism.

“I’m hoping that you’re ready to update your harsh and rather unenlightened views of our dynamic, serious and inspiring expression of Judaism that animates almost 900 congregations representing over a million- and-a-half North American Jews,” he wrote.

However, Jacobs continued that he and his movement “stand ready to work with you to strengthen our people and our Jewish state” and invited Rivlin to “visit our thriving congregations, our academies of higher Jewish learning, our 14 overnight summer camps, the largest Jewish camp system in the world, teeming with young Jews living exuberant and committed Jewish lives.”

JTA contributed to this report.

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